We begin with England, as the reform movement in England was to have repercussions in the rest of the
British Isles — in Wales, in Scotland, and in Ireland, although in different ways and to different degrees.
Indeed it might be said that had England remained Catholic, which as you will see was a matter of
historical chance rather than design, it is doubtful the Protestant Reformation would have succeeded in
Scotland or Wales or, thus finally, in North America. This is not to say that each country was influenced
in the same way and to the same degree — they were not — but that the dominant position of England
within the British Isles had an impact far beyond its borders, and across time also.
England was to be dominated theologically by Calvinism for more than a century, but it was a Calvinism
modified by a royal determination to keep certain aspects of Catholicism — a very odd mixture, which
was to lead to conflict. England is a good example too of a process I call the nationalisation of religion.
Prior to the Reformation, all western Europe ascribed to one form of Christianity. Nationalism had not yet
developed either. That is, people spoke different languages, and felt an attachment to their local village
or town or region — but did not combine this cultural description with any form of loyalty to a country as
we do today. Rather they described themselves as Christians who happened to speak different dialects
of English or French or German, or other languages, and happened to have a different king as their
In Unit 1, I noted that the Reformation was made possible in a practical sense by the support of local
rulers. That is, if a local ruler opted for the ideas which germinated in Wittenburg and Geneva, they could
only be stopped through warfare. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, attempted to reinstate
Catholicism in central Europe, but because of the sheer number of states which left the Church and
because he was distracted by the threat of Islam he did not succeed, except in areas close to the centre of his power — in the south of Germany. Places such as England were too far removed from Charles’s
armies to be threatened realistically.
Nationalisation of Religion
Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary: The First Interlude
When in 1534 Henry VIII was proclaimed Supreme Head of the Church in England (note, not the Church
of England, but in England), this was the beginning of the trend for Christianity in England to become
identified with one national group rather than many. Henry, the good Catholic, was compelled to do this
because his Queen, Catherine of Aragon, did not produce a male heir. This was especially important in
those days, not only because generally (but not always) men ruled — but because Henry’s family, the
Tudors, were new to the throne. His father, Henry VII, had been the victor in a civil war in England, and
was the founding member of a new dynasty. Henry VIII, his son, could not risk another civil war breaking
on his death, and felt the need for a son, rather than a daughter, to succeed him. Ironically, he was to be
proven wrong in this, as he was to be followed by a short-lived son, then two daughters, the second of
whom was to be remembered as England’s greatest monarch. But this is to ascribe to Henry the ability
to foresee the future, which none of us have.
Henry followed with a moderate reform of the church in England, firstly and most importantly ordering an
English translation of the Bible be placed in each church. While the Bible was to form a common focal
point for all Protestants, its translation into vernacular languages was to cause a tendency to
‘nationalize’ scripture. There was, curiously, little opposition to Henry’s moves: most notably Thomas
More, and one Bishop, John Fisher, were executed for failing to submit. For ordinary people, little
changed in their religious practices except for the slow introduction of English into services. The one
major change that altered the landscape of faith was the dissolution of the monasteries, beginning in 1536. Monasteries dotted the countryside and towns and cities of England. Monks and nuns, belonging
to many religious orders, were a large presence, who incidentally provided most of the social welfare in
society. Henry needed money, however, and expropriated the buildings and lands of the monasteries,
then sold them off to private individuals. Most of the monks and nuns were pensioned off, though some
of the men became parish priests in local churches.
You might like to read Eamon Duffy's "The Voices of Morebath", which tells the story of one English
village and its priest throughout the Reformation period — and puts a human face on these changes.
By 1539, Henry called a halt to further changes with the Act of Six Articles. This Act reaffirmed traditional
Catholic theological teachings (except of course the Papacy!) — the penalty for refusing to assent being
death. Hence Henry was in the ironic position in the history of the Reformation of executing both
Catholics and Protestants for heresy. You might call his reform at this point ‘Catholicism without the
Click here to sample some music composed by Henry VIII. http://www.emusic.com/album/Hugh-Wilson-
Whatever the nature of religion in Henry’s England , his only legitimate son, Edward, was raised a
Protestant and a Calvinist. Henry died in 1547, and the nine-year-old Edward VI became King. The country was actually ruled by a committee of Protestant nobles, though recent research has found
Edward had more influence than previously thought. We forget that people had to mature faster in those
days when life spans were much shorter than today. Royal commissioners were sent out across the
kingdom to ensure that a strict Protestantism was enforced. Wall paintings in churches (a common
English style — paintings of saints and Biblical stories adorned church walls) were whitewashed, altars
smashed, gold and silver cups and plates sold off, stained-glass windows destroyed, and the interior
architecture of churches altered to change the focus from the Mass at the altar, to an auditorium style
where preaching was the focus.
The altered service of the English church was changed fundamentally with the introduction of the Book
of Common Prayer in 1549. (See http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/BCP_1549.htm )
This is a single volume compendium of all the rites of Anglicanism — Holy Communion (formerly the
Mass), morning prayers, evening prayers, baptisms, funerals, marriages, the Psalms, and other
miscellaneous prayers for special occasions and purposes. It, along with the English language Bible,
was to become the focus of Anglican belief and practice from then until today — with one or two
A second, more strictly Calvinist, revised prayer book was produced in 1552, and the next year an
attempt to define the English reformation in 41 articles of faith.
But then, the 13 year old Edward VI died and was succeeded by his Catholic sister Mary. This was the
first interlude in the English reform. Mary re-introduced Catholicism. This was a very popular act, as
most of the people in England were not happy with the reform. Catholic statues, silver cups, even altars
were hidden all over the country —buried in gardens or hidden away in isolated barns. The people dug
them up, brought them out again, and re-decorated their churches for the Catholic Mass once again.
Mary tested the support of her people when she married Philip of Spain, the son and heir of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.Mary had, ironically, a good relationship with her half-sister Elizabeth and
with two of her father’s wives (even though they were Protestants). After a rebellion nearly overthrew
Mary, she instituted reprisals, executing many Protestants. Her reign was not particularly bloody, but her
reputation was attacked by one of the earliest examples of propaganda: John Foxe’s illustrated book
"Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days", touching Matters of the Church. Published in
1563, it related the persecution of Protestants by Mary and linked them to the persecution of other
individuals he saw as precursors to Protestantism in the past.
The Elizabethan Settlement and Its Limits: Anglicans, Catholics and
Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth I was
determined to restore the Protestant settlement — no doubt in that fervently religious age because this
was her belief, but also because the firmly nationalistic churches of the Protestant Reformation were
easier to control. She would have no Pope — no outside authority above her own in this world to deal
with — but a compliant church and religious establishment to help set the tone of the nation and to hold
it together. It helped her policy that Elizabeth reigned for a long period, from 1558–1603. In this reign,
she re-established Anglicanism as the Church of England, firstly through legal process: (See Elizabeth I
and religion, 1558-1603 Doran, Susan. London ; New York : Routledge 1994)
1559: Act of Uniformity
This was similar to Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy of 1534, an attempt to
legally ‘nationalize’ religion in England. It was accompanied by attempts to extend this to all the British
Isles — which ended in failure. In it, the monarch was now called the ‘supreme governor’ of the church
(as Elizabeth II is today) and a 3rd Book of Common Prayer was issued. For the historian, a point to be
remembered here is that religious freedom was not intended, but rather the imposition of a Protestant
form, dictated by the State. There was no sense that religion was a private, individual matter, or that religion should be divorced from the State. Rather, religion was still religio, a public matter which
bolstered the administration and was itself supported by the monarchy and the levers of government. In
non-theological terms, the only change was from an international religion to a national religion, which
matched the growth of political nationalism in this period of history — which was a new concept.
1562: Book of Metrical Psalms
Published in English, this book set the public style of worship in
Anglican churches until the 19th century. The form of worship in the new Church of England (Anglican,
that is) was to consist from this time on of readings and prayers in English — the readings being from
the Bible, and the prayers composed based on Biblical texts, accompanied by psalms chanted or sung.
Despite the modern association of choral music with English churches, in Anglicanism, this was a late
development — except in cathedrals where a Catholic musical tradition survived (i.e. parts of the service
were sung by the choir) the norm for the first two hundred years of Anglicanism did not include hymns
(as in Lutheran churches), but only psalms.
A ‘catechism’ is usually a written presentation of religious beliefs in question and
answer format. By this time, the Lutherans had catechisms produced by Martin Luther himself, and the
Calvinists had Jean Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Anglicanism was functioning on a kind of
‘ad hoc’ make-it-up-as-you-go system. This catechism was the first attempt to provide a means of
teaching what members of the Church of England were supposed to believe. The 42 articles of Edward’s
reign were mostly for clergy and theologians, not ordinary people. The catechism of 1563 presented a
form of religion which defined Anglicanism as treading a middle path between Calvinism and
Lutheranism — with vestiges of Catholicism.
1563: 38 Articles of Religion
In the same year, theologians agreed on 38 theological principles which
underlay the new Church of England.
1571: 39 Articles of Faith
This was the final form of the theological principles of Anglicanism, which still exist to the present. All clergy — but never the laity — were required to assent to these articles, as
were students at Oxford and Cambridge (which were the training grounds for Anglican clergy).
Nonetheless, the articles were characterized by ambiguity on most of the theological arguments of the
day between different Protestant groups.
England became a confessional state in this period; that is, the Church of England was not only
established legally, but it became integrated into the hearts and minds of the people as a part of the
national identity. Even today, with broad secularization, English people maintain a kind of nationalist
adherence to the Church of England. Whether one actually assents to the doctrines of Anglicanism is
less important than assenting to the forms of Anglicanism in public. It was from this time a civic duty and
a civic necessity for full citizenship. Thus the English maintained and even revived the old Roman sense
of religio — that religion is a public duty and a public act, whatever you may personally believe yourself.
Those who did not assent were for the first three centuries of Anglicanism occasionally persecuted. They
were not thrown to the lions as in ancient Rome, but did suffer under various legal disabilities, some
It seems likely that this top-down, imposed faith became popular for certain particular reasons. First, and
more mundanely, was because Elizabeth II was Queen for so long. By the time she died in 1603, there
were very few people living who remembered Catholic England, or even the Calvinist England of Edward
VI. Secondly, in 1570, the Pope ex-communicated Elizabeth, and Catholic Spain thus took it upon itself
to attempt to conquer England in order to remove the heretic Elizabeth and restore this realm to the
Catholic faith. Thus, Anglicanism began to represent nationalism, or rather Catholicism began to be
equated with treason.
There were, however, limits. The first problem was the survival of
Catholicism. Elizabeth employed the same methods her half-brother Edward had used to attack the old religion —
and the same methods her half-sister Mary had used to restore the Old Religion — Royal
Commissioners were sent out to travel the country side enforcing the various legal changes to ritual,
ritual ornaments and architecture. They had the most difficulty enforcing the changes in the area of
rituals surrounding death and what happens to one after death. The Catholic Church in England had
always successfully addressed this issue — in ways which ordinary people found deeply satisfying.
We must remember, too, that Catholicism was never entirely suppressed — that somewhere around 10
percent of the population never abandoned the Old Religion (as it was called for some time), especially
in the north of England, where powerful nobles controlled vast tracts of land (thousands of acres each)
and many of these powerful nobles remained Catholic, particularly the Howard family. They sent
promising young men to Europe to train for the priesthood in seminaries set up there in exile to train
English priests, then brought them back to provide for the local Catholic populations. These estates were
so large that they contained entire villages, which remained Catholic. Great lords also built chapels in
Of course, after 1570, the position of Catholics became more difficult as Catholicism in England became
equated with treason from that time. Various increasingly harsher laws were passed with the penalty of
death — for being a priest, for allowing a Mass to be said, and so on. Even today, when there are more
practising Catholics in England and Wales than there are Anglicans, Catholicism is still considered by
many ordinary people to be a foreign religion.
The second problem, the Puritans, was even more dangerous to Anglicanism.
From the 1570s a dissident group within the Church of England — who came to be known as Puritans
— worked to further ‘purify’ the Church of England, to purge it of remaining resemblances to
Catholicism, such as having bishops, and to establish church government by presbyteries (that is, councils of local church members) rather than by bishops. Outward appearances were vital to this
project, because all religious people still thought in terms of religio. The special clothing worn by priests
or ministers was a flash point in Elizabeth’s reign. Catholic priests had worn elaborate robes (called
vestments), each part of which had symbolic importance. Church of England priests wore vestments
only slightly simplified from the mediaeval Catholic robes. In Calvinist and Lutheran lands, clergy wore
ordinary street clothes, or perhaps a simple preaching robe over clothes. This was called the ‘vestiarian
controversy’ and was Elizabeth’s most difficult problem to deal with. She was forced to eject Puritan
clergy from churches to enforce her choice. The more ‘purely’ Protestant form of religion which is
symbolized by vestments was held in check for her reign, and for that of her successor, but was not to
be settled finally until 1662. Elizabeth avoided the unhappiness Edward VI’s reforms had caused by
allowing many folk religious practices to continue. For example, parish churches, mostly in the
countryside, but also in towns, performed a ritual called the ‘beating of the bounds’. This had its origin in
pre-Christian times, but was incorporated into English Catholic Christianity from the earliest days. It
involved the members of a village church walking the boundaries of their parish, and stopping at marker
stones or trees which were beat with sticks, and later bells were rung. Verses from scriptures were
chanted, and banners of saints special to the local church and community were carried. Elizabeth
allowed this ritual to continue, though without the saints’ images. (See
Anglicanism can be said to adhere to the principle expressed in an ancient Latin expression: lex orandi,
lex credendi - a phrase meaning that if you wished to know what Anglicans believed, you had to see
what and how Anglicans prayed. In sum, it was a reform carefully and gradually introduced with a
minimum of rancour by a wise monarch. It was to be proved in the next century and last into the modern
However, the next 80 or so years were to be turbulent times for the new Church of England — as less
skillful monarchs than Elizabeth dealt with these same problems less skillfully. 1603–1625: Reign of King James I
He was also King James VI of Scotland. In 1604, he re-affirmed
the nature of English episcopal Protestantism and introduced another Book of Common Prayer, dashing
hopes of Puritans that he would introduce Scottish-style Calvinist Protestantism into England. Elizabeth
never married, as in marriage the husband is superior and she was unwilling to cede any of her
authority. She was succeeded by her nearest relative, James, who was already King of Scotland.
Scotland , as we shall see, was already Protestant, in a fiercely Calvinist form.
1611: The Bible, King James Version
Perhaps the greatest product of his reign was the Authorized
Version or King James version of the Bible in English. It was to be (and still is, to many) the standard
Protestant Bible in English-speaking countries. It was a rare instance of ‘internationalism’ rather than
‘nationalism’ within English-speaking Protestantism — perhaps because both Puritans and episcopal
Anglicans worked on the translation, perhaps because the English language was at its height in terms of
poetic expression, or perhaps because ‘sola scriptura’ was common to all Protestants. It is a remarkable
achievement as its cadences and use of language were to influence the language and, more
importantly, the imagination of the English-speaking world until well into the 20th century, whether
Anglican or other Protestant Christian.
The Second Interlude
The Puritan Challenge to the Church of England:
The English Civil War, Commonwealth & Protectorate 1642–1660
From the death of James I in 1625 to 1662 was a period when the middle-of-the-road Anglican
settlement battled with Puritanism, resulting in the eventual victory of Anglicanism. King Charles I, the
son of James I, reigned from 1625 until his execution in 1649 — at which time England ceased temporarily to be a monarchy, and experimented with ‘puritanism’ in religion. This era known as the
English Civil War is usually described in political terms but was as much a religious war as a civil war,
and is our second interlude from an otherwise unbroken narrative of Anglicanism.
This period was a reaction firstly against attempts by Charles I to rule without parliament, and secondly,
against attempts by Charles and his chief bishop, William Laud, to impose a much more Catholic style of
Anglicanism, not only on England, but also on Scotland — Charles being also king of that still-separate
country. Parliament, however, included as its strongest allies Puritans who felt the English reformation
was not complete, and particularly hated Charles as they suspected him of being a closet Catholic. It did
not help that his wife Henrietta Maria was Catholic. As a result civil war broke out, with the royalists and
Anglicans on one side, and the forces of parliament headed by Puritans on the other.
At this point, I should say a few brief words about parliament. Parliament began as a royal advisory
council, with gradually growing powers of taxation which exceeded those held by the monarch. Unlike
kings in France or Spain, English kings were forced to work with parliament because of this financial
clout. Thus English democracy (still far in the future) had its ea